A Separate Place

Al-Akhbar’s critic suggests that despite the ambiguous honor of an Oscar, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation was in fact a fine and nuanced work of social criticism and filmmaking.

Asghar Farhadi took to the stage at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday to accept the Best Foreign Language Film award for his new work, A Separation (2011).

In his speech, Farhadi said: “At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award…but because at a time when there’s talk of war…the name of their country – Iran – is spoken here through her glorious culture. A rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.”

He continued by saying, “I proudly offer this award to the people of my country. A people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

The film has been critically acclaimed ever since its screening and received one award after the other, including the Golden Bear award in the Berlin Film Festival and a Cesar award in Paris for best foreign movie, one day before the Oscars.

Farhadi’s film was primarily directed at an Iranian audience. The film is a well-knit drama about the distress that afflicts an Iranian middle class family when the couple Nader and Simin separate. As a backdrop to the plot, the director draws a complete image of contemporary Iranian life, as is the case with many of his films where social concerns are a prominent theme.

Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, invents a dramatic edge for an everyday divorce case, which he uses to address the sharp class division in Iran as well as the roles of religion and the judicial system.

The film is a smart parable about Iran’s political reality and the conflict between two currents in Iranian society: the religious and the liberal.

Farhadi develops his dramatic structure by using the litigation between two families before the religious court system, led by a team of skilled actors.

His characters belong to two families. Each in turn belongs to a different social class – one is middle class and the other hails from the religious lower classes.

This places the viewer before each family’s options to solve their predicament without resorting to judging them.

Here lies the dilemma that Farhadi referred to in his acceptance speech: Iran’s situation is more complex than it appears on the screen.

He says that “the conflict in the film is not between good and evil, but between two conflicting perceptions of what is good,” rejecting the West’s demonization of his country.

Most of the scenes in the two-hour film were shot indoors, between the couple’s home and court. It is as though the director wanted to tell us that those are the limits of freedom in these societies.

The director succeeds in stripping an entire social and political system through addressing a simple social topic. Farhadi’s ability to keep the viewer captivated despite the limited locations lies in the scenario and dialogue. The film relies on short and fast scenes, accompanied by an intense dialogue and a great deal of emotion.

A second factor, which only enhances the first, is the camera. Even though the film is devoid of dazzling shots and images, the camera’s movements between actors is quick, enriching the dynamics of the dialogue.

The film’s reportorial style and absence of visual effects renders it similar to documentaries. Perhaps the director adopted this method in order to reflect the daily social reality.

Religious symbols, like the headscarf and references to the Quran, do make an appearance here and there. But the director seems to have made a conscious decision to exclude clerics altogether, even at the courts where many scenes take place.

Farhadi wanted this absence to be an expression of his rejection of this religious authority.

The film addresses a variety of classes and groups in the Iranian society: the working husband, the unemployed husband, the working wife, the daughter, the mother, the female student, the policeman, and the judge.

These characters express a high level of kindness, respect, love, and even honesty. However, it is the same society that produces these values that also imposes its cruelty and injustice on these characters and drives them to lie and cheat as a means of survival.

Yazan Ashkar. Jamal Hachem